I'd never heard of Mark Slouka which is not surprising given that he is a Professor at the University of Chicago, and a Creative Writing one at that, and I live a few thousand miles away. A bit of background digging and I discover that he was warning about the perils of the virtual world back in the late 1990's.He has since been the subject of some heated online debate over his Creative Writing tenure and the fact it failed to materialize at the University of Columbia.Grumpy Old Bookman was onto that case last year and Mark Slouka's ex-students were not happy bunnies either.
He must certainly be wishing we'd all heeded his advice and paid less attention to computers.
So I'm not sure how he'll feel, should he stumble across it, about my thoughts on his latest novel The Visible World residing on a blog.
But let's ignore all that and take this book, published by Portobello, on its merits and actually to me they are manifold.
First things first, this is a nice squarish book and another sepia cover with those dashes of colour inserted to catch the eye, but thankfully this one gentle enough to do the business.
As soon as this arrived I wanted to read it.
As a child of Czech refugees Mark Slouka seems to have taken a subject close to home in his hauntingly good tripartite novel which is clearly described as memoir, intermezzo and novel.It all feels very mittel-European in tone and pace and we love that here.
Ostensibly the central story is a love triangle between three characters caught up in the wartime murder of Reinhard Heydrich, better known as The Butcher of Prague.A bungled assassination attempt but the job finished off by a bout of fulminating septicaemia and devastating reprisals against the Czech people resulted, so a great deal of fact mixed in with this fiction.
Add in some more facts; Mark Slouka's parents were involved in the Resistance during the war and he grew up in the exiled Czech community in New York and I found myself slipping constantly in and out of seamless bouts of both truth and fiction.
I always home in on books offering an accurate child's point of view with all it's half-glimpsed events only partially understood by child and reader alike and shot through with that innate sixth sense that children have that something's up.
Eve Green by Susan Fletcher always comes to mind as another book that pulls this off well.
Mark Slouka get's it right several times over as he offers different stages in his child's growing awareness as we meet him in the first person narrative aged seven, then nine and so on.Layer builds upon layer and all peppered with those little details that children notice and remember; slowly we piece together what may have happened at the same pace and not a step faster.The whole is brought together in the third part of the book, the novel, and as is often the case with me, a book suddenly glides effortlessly from a good read into a great one.There is a powerful turning point in The Visible World, the solid foundations have been laid and then suddenly you know you are reeled in until the final page.
There is also one of the best descriptions I have read of a subjugated people, the Czech people are suffering mercilessly at the hands of the Nazis
"Validate the other's disgust for you without encouraging it; play the mongrel without incurring the kick...reshaping yourself to survive...It made for an interesting problem: the better you were at the role, the more talent you had for it, the more likely it was that you'd live - and the more likely that you'd lose yourself along the way."
Head here for A Conversation with Mark Slouka and his own personal thoughts about the book.
Meanwhile many thanks to Portobello because here's a book I don't think I'd have found in a million years, one I'm delighted to have read, and with apologies to Mark Slouka but any publicity must surely be better than none?